Raising Backyard Chickens: A How To Guide

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Raising backyard chickens is increasing in popularity throughout the suburbs and cities. Not just for farmers anymore, chickens not only produce eggs, they are also very efficient at snapping up insect pests that might otherwise eat your flowers, they produce excellent fertilizer, and they are entertaining pets with unique personalities.

Eggs fresh from the hen are a far cry from an egg that was laid weeks ago and has been sitting in a grocer’s refrigerator ever since. If you are interested in sustainable living, want organic food or just want to know exactly where your food comes from, a backyard chicken coop might be your next destination.

Before starting to shop for supplies, however, check with your local zoning department. Many cities do not allow chickens or other livestock on residential properties.

The Best Chickens To Raise At Home

Many breeds of chicken will thrive in the backyard. Here are some of the best breeds for beginners.

  • Rhode Island Red: This popular breed is healthy and vigorous, and has an excellent egg-laying rate. Rhode Island Reds are also good for meat.
  • Barred Plymouth Rock: Beautiful black and white feathers, large brown eggs and a high laying rate make the barred Plymouth Rock a popular backyard bird. They are good for meat, and have an endearing personality.
  • Leghorns: Although not a meat chicken, the leghorn is an egg-laying machine. They are nervous birds however, and can be unfriendly if not raised with a lot of handling.
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How To Care For Chicks

You can purchase chicks from online hatcheries or many large feed stores. Once you bring your chicks home, it is critical they be kept warm and safe for the first 60 days. You do not need a coop for chicks; they can start off in a large cardboard box, rabbit or hamster cage. The cage needs to be large enough for the chicks to move around freely, and to hold water and food bowls.

Your chicks will require:

  • Temperatures of 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week, and reduced by five degrees a week until the chicks are feathered. A brooder or reptile heat lamp will provide warmth for your chicks.
  • Water in a shallow, frequently cleaned dish. You can buy a watering dish, or use a very shallow saucepan. Chicks can easily drown, so don’t use anything deep.
  • Chicken starter feed, which you can purchase along with your chicks. A metal chicken feeder with removable top will keep your chicks from scattering their food everywhere, and is easy to clean.
  • When chicks are a month old, add a stick or piece of wood as a roost. It should be four inches above the brooder floor.
  • Outdoor time can start once the chicks are two weeks old. You must watch them closely, as they can easily be lost or injured, and many predators will be interested in a chicken dinner. Only let them out for a short time and in warm weather.

Chicken Coop Guidelines

When your chicks are fully feathered, usually between five and eight weeks, they can move into a chicken coop. There are hundreds of styles of chicken coops available, some that are portable for you to move around the yard, and some that stay in one spot.Your coop should be large enough to provide two square feet per chicken, and the outside area for the chickens to range should be at least eight square feet per chicken. Overcrowding promotes disease, so don’t skimp on space.

Other requirements of a chicken coop are:

  • Good ventilation
  • Protection from predators
  • Warmth in the winter, with a heater in very cold areas
  • Shade and protection from wind
  • A lay box for eggs
  • A roosting area 36 inches off the ground
  • Light from windows or electrical light
  • Easy to clean

How To Care For Hens

Once your hens are settled in their coop, they will instinctively return to it at dusk for sleeping. Closing the coop door at night will prevent predators such as cats, dogs, opossums or even bears from coming after your flock. Let your hens out in the morning to forage in their pen while you clean the coop and gather any eggs. Provide fresh bedding of river sand or wood shavings, and clean frequently.

Hens usually begin laying eggs when they are between five and seven months old, and lay an egg every day to every third day. As the hen matures, egg-laying increases to a peak at around age two, then slowly declines over the years. Hens do not need a rooster to lay eggs, but the eggs will be infertile.Chickens must have clean water each day, and it should be changed frequently. You can add liquid vitamins to the water for extra benefits. You can feed your hens commercial chicken food purchased at the feed store, and they will happily forage for bugs, grass, seeds and weeds.

Supplement your flock’s diet with treats like:

  • Red worms
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Dry oatmeal
  • Bread crusts
  • Hardboiled egg yolk

How To Keep Chickens Healthy

If kept in good conditions, chickens are hardy, healthy birds. You should inspect your hens each day for any sign of disease, however, so you can nip any health issue in the bud. You will need to locate a veterinarian who treats birds. Your local feed store should be able to give you recommendations. How will you know if you're chicken is sick?

Signs of a sick bird include:

  • Sneezing or respiratory distress
  • Abnormally thin bird
  • Rough, scaly legs or beak
  • Parasites on skin or feathers
  • Excessive feather loss or bald spots outside molting season
  • Behavioral changes
  • Lack of activity
  • Lack of appetite

Chickens can live to be 20 years old, but on average, live about eight years. Taking good care of your birds will lengthen their life and keep them laying tasty eggs on a regular schedule.

You may never have thought of yourself as a farmer, but if your city allows it and you have the space, a backyard chicken coop may just change your mind. When you taste your first omelet made with truly fresh, you will quickly appreciate your feathered flock.

Last Updated: March 22, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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